2 Kings 2:1-12 and Mark 9:2-9 The challenge of the prophet
Reflection by Rev Anne Stewart
If you’ve been around much lately, you might have noticed that Dan has been having a wee look at a couple of Old Testament characters, firstly Jonah and then last week, appropriately, Daniel. I wonder how familiar some of these Old Testament characters are to you. Maybe you are, like me, having to rely on your Sunday School memories to help you know much about some of these characters. Study of the Old Testament was, of course, part of my theology degree and training for ministry but I don’t recall much from that time about the actual characters, more time, as I recall, was spent studying the context of the time. So, Dan and I have decided to put some time this year, into delving a little deeper into some of the characters and what we can learn from them, for our living. This morning I will be focusing a little bit on Elijah but then from next week we are planning a six-week run on Esther, which will take us all the way to Easter.
Let’s begin then, with a quick glance at what you know about Elijah. What comes to mind when you hear the name Elijah? It’s maybe surprising that we don’t know more about this particular character given that there are references to Elijah in both the Old and New testaments of our Bible and in the Mishnah (the collection of work taken from the Jewish oral tradition) and the Talmud (the central text of Rabbinic Judaism), the Quran, the Book of Mormon, and in Bahai’ writings. As you can see Elijah gets a fair bit of airtime across the faiths.
Here are some things that I have learned. The name Elijah means ‘The LORD is my God.’ There is plenty of evidence that Elijah lived as though he believed this to be true. He was a man who listened for, and heard God. In the two Books of Kings, we see that the word of God came to Elijah, many times. He was obedient, doing as God asked, even when it wasn’t easy. Elijah experienced God’s provision (1 Kings, God says, ‘I have commanded the ravens to feed you’ and the ravens brought him bread and meat.) He was a man in constant conversation with God – prayer was integral to who he was. There isn’t enough time to go any further into Elijah’s story today but can I encourage you to read what you can, in your Bibles, google him or use whatever means you have to dig a little deeper and see what you find about his story.
But of course, the most obvious answer is that we know that Elijah was a prophet. A prophet’s task was to speak on behalf of God, which made it important, of course, that the prophet was open to, and able to, hear God. Being a prophet means you have to be brave. Often what you have to expose and speak of are things that nobody really wants to face; you have to be brave to relay what can be hard truths. So, Elijah was to be God’s mouthpiece and here is why. Previously, in the Book of Samuel we see King David unifying the tribes into the kingdom of Israel and there was the expectation that from David’s line there would come a messianic king. But what actually followed through to the two Books of Kings was a long line of kings who never quite lived up to the promise of being a messianic king. At times there were some bad eggs in there, with some pretty dodgy behaviour. So, God sent prophets to try to prevent the corruption of Israel that these bad kings were creating and cultivating.
The prophet’s task was to be a covenant ‘watch dog’. God’s covenant, the agreement with the people of Israel, ‘I will be your God, you will be my people’, was at risk because of the leadership of these wayward kings. Agreeing to be God’s people is one thing but sticking to it when other gods are being pointed to is quite another! It’s no different of course today and we continue to need those who are watching out for us in this. The prophets were charged with calling out idolatry, that perpetual temptation to put anything in the way of our worship of God. They were to name and expose injustice and constantly remind Israel of it’s calling to be a light to the nations. They were to challenge and hold Israel to account because the kings that followed David were not what they should or could have been.
Now, leaving that to one side, I’m going to change direction a bit here and we’ll come back to the role of the prophets a bit later. Over the summer break I caught up with some writing that my Franciscan Friar friend Richard Rohr has been doing. I want to explain the concept and see how this helps us in our work of getting to know some of the characters that we will encounter throughout this year. I’m going to interpret Rohr a little bit here in the hope of finding an accessible language for us. What I have been reading about was the idea that there are three layers of story within which we all live. The first layer we can call ‘my story’.
These are the things about us that tell us who we are; the things that say, ‘this is me’. ‘My story’ is full of subjective stories about who I am, who and how I relate, my psychology, my history, my way of being, my worldview. These are the stories we hear on talk shows, in blogs, and on social media. The ‘my story’ is a very strong voice currently in our culture, maybe because prior to this we didn’t speak so publicly about ourselves so there is some corrective work going on, even though it can sometimes feel like it’s a little over-done. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging and sharing our personal stories, it’s a good thing but my story is not the only story.
Encompassing my story, is ‘our story’. These are the wider stories that express ‘who we are’. This is where most people in all of human history have lived their lives; in the collective. In the past we tended to identify completely with our ethnicity, our gender, our group, our religion and our occupations. The question of ‘who are you’ was often answered with, I am a doctor, or I am a Christian, or I am a New Zealander. This used to be how we identified ourselves. Again, this story is important, we need to understand our collective stories of who we are, and how we came to be as we are. But if this is all there is then we become identified by our particular ‘group’ and set ourselves over and against those who are not in our ‘group’. If this is the only story then we have the makings of who is in and who is out, us and them, class systems, gender and racial divides and battles, and so on. Our story, like my story is important but again it’s not the only story.
Covering both my story and our story is ‘The story’. This refers to those patterns in life that are always true – beyond anecdote and my cultural history. This is the big picture, the story that sits over and above all of our personal stories and our collective stories. To fully grasp ‘The story’ we need to first walk through and take responsibility for our personal stories and our group story. If we bypass these two smaller stories, we can very quickly become fundamentalist in our thinking. We can jump to spiritual answers or theology without any honest self-knowledge or knowledge of history. We need to be listening to our own experiences, failures, successes etc and recognize too that we are a part of history, a part of a culture (or many cultures), a religious group, a gender, for good and for bad. In ‘The Story’ there is no longer woman or man, Greek or Jew, slave or master – here all are created equal and loved and valued equally. Sometimes this big story is called a ‘meta-narrative; a story which encompasses and shapes all of our individual and collective stories. A story that is bigger than them but which frames them into God’s big picture. When we are able to see all three layers of story as worthy of love and attention, we have moved to being a rather mature spiritual person.
So, back to Elijah and the idea of prophets. My question for you this morning is how do the prophet’s in our time speak to ‘your story’, to ‘our story’ and to ‘The Story’? Asking who are the prophets in our time might be the first place to start. Remembering, of course, that not all of those who proclaim themselves as prophets actually are prophets. The warning to ‘beware of false prophets’ is as relevant today as it has ever been. But think about who challenges you personally, who calls your personal passions from drifting into idolatry? Who calls you out when you are being unjust? Maybe even when you think you are just standing up for yourself, who reminds you when you are drifting from your path with God? And then who is doing it in our story? Who does it for us in our cultural worlds? How do we hear them when we really don’t want to? Often we don’t want to hear them because they make us feel uncomfortable, they challenge our comforts, name our idolatrous ways, and our injustices and they keep us to account. How dare they!
Who reminds us that we are part of the bigger story, far beyond us, yet also deep within us? There are prophets speaking to us on all these layers of story that we live within. My challenge to you is to recognise them, acknowledge them, listen to them and let them speak God’s word of ‘The Story’ to you, and to us collectively, and see where that leads us. I wish we could do more on this today but we might have to come back a little later on when you have had time to reflect, but what about seeing if you can name one person you recognise as a prophet and consider why they are a prophet in your life. That might be fun! You might like to share that with someone close. Remember too that a prophet may not always be a ‘perfect’ character, God often speaks through the flawed. In fact, the voice of the flawed may be an easier one to hear because we may well recognise ourselves in their flaws. Alternatively, they may not look a bit like us, and so evade recognition that way. But keep alert, listen hard and we can talk again later.